Monday, December 6, 2010

True Stories of John 6: Digital Horse, OR, The Life and Times of Felicity (Digital Horse)

Early in Red Dead Redemption your cowboy is taught how to rope, break in and keep horses. You chase a herd of horses across the sunny plains of Hennigan's Stead. On that mission, between all the brown and white backs, I glimpsed gold hair. I tried to chase it on my modest mare, but it was too quick.

Back in town a friend and I messed around the General Store and found the listing of all available horses. Near the bottom was the Kentucky Saddler, a golden-pearl steed that was supposedly one of the fastest alive, only matched by the equally rare American Standard. My friend and I were stunned. If we could catch that, we'd ride it for the rest of the game. We immediately ran back out into the fields, but the horse was gone. I was stuck with a standard horse, which I named Felicity. I name all my horses Felicity, because I love Zapp Brannigan.

Any time we passed through Hennigan’s Stead again, we’d run across the fields for a hint of golden pearl hair. Day after day we had no luck, until my vacation ended and I returned home. I wrote, did errands, cleaned the house, and finally sat back down with the game. I listened to two hours of streaming NPR hunting that stupid horse without any luck. One time, just once I saw it. I lassoed it, dismounted, and a cougar jumped from off-screen to kill me in a single bite.

I had trouble sleeping that night, so I sat up and went on a bounty hunt. Apparently there was somebody so horrible that the feds would pay be $200 to kill him or $400 to drag him in alive. I tracked him across the entire world map, about four minutes’ ride, which in playing feels like fifteen, which in memory feels like an hour. It’s an investment. I arrived at a rocky plateau and had to shoot it out with the hombre and his seven goons, all of whom had the high ground while I had a two-foot rock to hide behind. I managed to catch him alive, bind him and drag him halfway across the state.

Halfway I spotted a blonde horse drinking at the gully.

I left that stupid hombre and my normal horse instantly. If it was real, peasants probably would have gawked at the grizzled man sprinting down the slopes and squealing like a child.

It was bad. The Kentucky Saddler tossed me immediately. I lassoed it and was dragged fifty feet. I lassoed it, almost reached, and was flung over its ass. It took me five tries, always having to get back up and chase it down until it slowed to climb back on, before the thing took pity on me and stayed still. I won.

“Good boy, Felicity,” I told the TV.

He had fabulous stamina. This guy could run for ten seconds straight -- which again is an achievement in videogame time. We collected the bounty I’d left behind and dozens more across the landscape. We ran into the desert to hunt snakes, chased down trains, and stormed the high ground in a ludicrous number of shootouts. He helped me chase down every other horse in the game except the rarest black stead, filling up my booklet with horse stamps. I never kept any of the horses we caught. They were for sport. Felicity was for keeps.

Eventually I had to go to Mexico. I crossed on a raft under the cover of darkness. There was no other way, no bridge or safe rail. Felicity could not come, for he would drown fording the river and could not fit on the raft. Despite my stealth, banditos soon emerged and hurled Molotov cocktails at me. I was forced to shoot flaming bottles out of the air or burn to death over water.

When I reached the other shore, I whistled. Felicity galloped to my side, having defied the laws of physics and game mechanics to materialize near his master.

“Good boy, Felicity,” I told the TV.

He was my method of transport for everything down south. I was after Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson, two men whom the game would like you to shoot. They were in a gang with you years ago, but left you to rot and die. Within minutes of meeting them again in this game, they shoot you and leave you for dead again. They run a miserable gang now, one that stabs prostitutes and sets ranches on fire for fun. They’re so awful that the federal government wants them dead – has hired you to kill them, and kidnapped your family to make sure you do it. Every sign points to getting these guys.

I spent the week of my free time pursuing them. I double-timed rebels and the military for leads. I did favors for nuns, idealists and necrophiliacs. I defended a train from forty robbers and burned down a shanty town. I collected women for the General’s pleasure and escorted a girl safely into the U.S. Anything for a lead. And always Felicity was there, either carrying me along the mission, or waiting idly by the finishing point.

Finally on Thursday I got a clue, and Felicity sped me to the fort. Alongside a band of revolutionaries I laid siege to the place, picking off snipers and burly shotgunners. I worked my way through three stories of the hovel before pinning down Escuella in a store room. He tried to sweet talk me, then jumped out a window and onto a horse. I followed him and whistled for Felicity. The familiar blue dot appeared on my minimap – but he was too far away. Escuella would escape before Felicity would get here.

I had to mount a generic red-brown horse and lept into pursuit. I pulled out my lasso, throwing and missing over and over again as the bandit fired his six-shooter at me. Being a big-baddy, he had unlimited ammo. I couldn’t shoot back. I wanted this man alive for his information.

Then I heard a third set of hoof-thumps. I looked over my cowboy’s shoulder, and there was the golden-pearl horse. I wanted to jump to him, but there’s no such function in Red Dead Redemption. Felicity kept pace behind us, as though equally invested in my vengeance. I turned to Escuella and threw my lasso. It missed. He fired off three shots, and I veered to the left out of the way. Another throw and he was snared around his middle, jerked off the horse and flying to the ground. I dismounted and hogtied him before he could resume firing.

As I finished tying him up, I noticed the blue dot was gone from my minimap. I picked Escuella up and turned to put him on Felicity. Behind us was the golden-pearl horse, collapsed in the dirt. Escuella’s last three shots had missed me, but killed him.

I lost my breath for a moment and nearly knifed the fictional bandit in my arms. Instead, I threw him over the red-brown horse and plodded back to civilization. I passed through Hennigan’s Stead, hopeful for a reincarnation. Not a single horse frolicked on the plains that digital day.

I turned Escuella in. Nothing changes whether he is killed or captured; he’s forgotten and you’re ordered to Blackwater, a heretofore unreachable settlement in the north. I travelled aimlessly, figuring I’d find the new house, save and go do other things. It honestly did not feel right without Felicity, and I didn’t name my new steed. Night fell around me. Red Dead Redemption’s nights are breathtaking, grass going gloomy and skies filling up with pinpoints of light. As I passed through the frontier, I saw a black horse silhouette on a hill. I neared, expecting better light to reveal it was just a dark brown one.

But no. That was a pitch black horse. The American Standard. The only one I’d never caught, and the only one in Felicity’s league.

It didn’t run as I rode by. I stopped at the bottom of the hill. I hadn’t saved my progress and risked losing a lot if I stayed. I physically pointed at the TV.

“You. Stay there.”

Then I bolted for town. I’d only be a minute, so hopefully the thing wouldn’t vanish or get eaten by a boar. Boars are voracious in this game.

Boars were not the problem. Nearing the town, I saw a broken down wagon. A woman yelled for help, which is a classic sign of a trap. Four bandits hide behind it to mug you. I usually dispatch them with Eastwood-like ease. But I was riding too fast, and so the characters all sprung up illogically quick and fired in unison, without aiming. I toppled off the horse and the screen went red.

I dropped the controller. I went downstairs, heated up some soup and called my grandfather. I like to check in on him.

After I simmered and the soup bubbled, I picked the controller back up. My cowboy woke up in a swanky frontier hotel with green wallpaper and blackjack in the lobby. I walked passed them and whistled for my horse. Felicity didn’t come. It was a random brown and white stead. For the heck of it, I rode back out to the hill. It was night again by the time I arrived, but there was no black silhouette up there. I rode up to where it had stood, then looked across the plains.

Down at the bottom of the hill were five horses. Four seemed to be running away from the fifth, which looked darker than the others. I descended, and it was indeed the American Standard. I lassoed him, hopped on his back, and as God is my witness, stayed on for the entire struggle. He reeled to his hind legs with the full moon behind us, then fell forward, complacent.

A grey and green logo flashed at the bottom of the screen: “Achievement Unlocked: Buckin’ Awesome.”

I’d caught him. The last horse, and possibly the best.

I told the TV, “Good boy, Felicity.”

Today we fought two grizzly bears at once. We’re bonding fast.


  1. Your storytelling ability always impresses me. This was phenomenally good. For someone who plays puzzle games, brain age, and the occasional round of Mario Party, it was enlightening. And I love the buddy-story feeling of you and Felicity fighting crime across the old west.

    Really, really excellent writing John. You just keep getting better.

  2. I loved this story when you told it to us the first time. I'm glad to see it here.

    Well done.

  3. That was incredibly interesting, and I don't even play video games much!

  4. John I know very little about the gaming world. Is this a real game or did you make it all up? I'm thoroughly impressed either way! "Buckin' Awesome!"

  5. Red Dead Redemption is a real game. It's one of the most popular games on the PS3 and X-Box 360 consoles this year. I finally got to play it thanks to Shelly. There's a debate over inert story and emergent story in games - inert being the ones explicitly told through its narrative, and emergent ones only existing in whatever the player puts together. Felicity is an emergent phenomenon, not at all intended to happen in the game, but possible because the systems (when a horse shows up, if you can catch it, how quickly it gets to you when called, etc.) are loose.

  6. That game sounds frickin' awesome. Makes me want to go and buy a console.

    Well told. I hadn't considered inert versus emergent, but it's a concept that makes complete sense to me. After all, I've played a ratonga that has been consistently screwed over by various kerra despite neutral game mechanics.


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